Cyclists: Some Myths About us Debunked

1. What one cyclist does, they all do

As I cycled past someone earlier today they snapped ‘at least you’ve got a bell’. I always find the bell thing tricky. Use it and you open yourself up to a torrent of abuse that there’s no need to be rude and you shouldn’t expect people to get out of your way (newsflash, I don’t, I’m just politely letting you know that I’m there). Fail to use it and you risk a torrent of abuse for your silent approach or, worse, someone blithely walking into your bike, even though they are on a path clearly labelled as a cycle route.

What bugs me more though is the assumption that somehow I’m answerable for the behaviour of all other cyclists. When someone finds out that I cycle they will frequently ask ‘why don’t you stop at red lights?’ This is with no knowledge of how I personally act as a cyclist, it’s just assumed that since some cyclists don’t stop, none of them do. This isn’t an issue that car drivers have to confront.  I’ve yet to be in a situation in which someone, on finding out that another person drives a car, randomly attacks them with the question ‘why do you do 30 in 20 zones?’ Talk to a car driver and ‘you’ is used in the singular, it refers specifically to that person. Talk to a cyclist and ‘you’ is used in its plural form,  as if use of a form of transport suddenly connects me to everyone else who happens to go about on two wheels.

This happens because cycling is seen as somehow unusual, it is seen as something that needs explaining and is worthy of note. Whereas car driving has become so ubiquitous that it needs no explanation – we all do it, so it is not other. Drivers see each other as individuals, who just so happen to drive, whereas they see cyclists as a collective group, as the ‘other’. The danger here is that drivers extend this behaviour on the road. Rather than see a cyclist as a person, as someone with hopes, fears and dreams, they label them according to their chosen method of transport and cease to see them as a person. This makes it easier not to care about them and to drive too close, fail to notice them, overtake and then brake, pull out on top of them – none of this matters because it’s not a person whose neck you’re risking, it’s just a cyclist, and they don’t count because well, everyone knows they’re a bit weird, right?

2. You don’t pay any road tax

This is such a tired old chestnut that I wonder why on earth anyone still says it, though they do. Truth be told, no-one in the UK pays road tax. Vehicles owners do however pay ‘vehicle excise duty’ or VED. To refer to it as ‘road tax’ is an interesting verbal sleight for it enables drivers to claim that they own a part of the road, and therefore have more rights over it than cyclists who they allege don’t pay road tax.

There are several errors at work here. For one thing, many, perhaps most cyclists also own cars, so in fact they do pay VED. For another, funding for roads comes not just from VED, but through general taxation and council tax. Since in the UK the wealthiest 20% of the population cycle more than the least wealthy 20%, cyclists, via their income tax, pay a substantial amount towards the roads. (Discounting of course the filthy rich 1% at the top of the pile. I don’t how much they cycle, I do know they pay very little, if any, tax). It is the nature of collective taxation systems that we will all pay for something that we do not use. Exeter city council for example will this year spend £1.1 million on the major refurbishment of the King William Street Car Park . I will never use this car park but my council tax is helping to pay for it. Such is life.

Finally, in 2007 there were over 2 million un-taxed vehicles on the road. So whilst the cyclist in front of you will, one way or another, be contributing to the upkeep of the roads, the car driver in front of you might well be paying less than their due.

3. You don’t stop at red lights

Some cyclists don’t, it’s true. But many do, it’s just that people tend not to notice law-abiding cyclists, whilst focusing on those who do break the law. It goes back to the first point – if a cyclist fails to stop at a red light it is taken as evidence that ‘they’ as a group break the law. Whereas if a driver fails to stop, it is simply taken as evidence that that individual is not law abiding.

If you watch driver and cyclist behaviour at traffic lights you’ll notice a distinct difference. Cyclists tend to filter through traffic and keep moving until they reach a red light, then they stop at the front of the queue and wait until it’s green to go. Drivers have no choice but to wait in the queue until eventually they can go through on green. This means that proportionally cyclists spend very little time at the back of the traffic light queue, and some time at the front of it. As such, they often have ample time to observe car drivers.

And what we observe is this – car drivers perpetually jump red lights. Many just take an amber gamble but almost every time a light changes to red, you’ll see at least one driver, maybe two, make the decision to keep going just after the light has changed, rather than stop. It seems that drivers view this, their own behaviour, in a rather different way. It’s an irregular verb. You jump red lights, I  just happen to go through shortly after the light isn’t green anymore.

4. You don’t use lights

I’m amazed at the number of people who can see the allegedly unseeable – the black ninja lightless cyclist. It’s true it does occasionally happen. It’s also true that most cyclists take a great deal of pride in their light sets. Trust me. We spend ages on websites comparing them. We debate candle power; battery life; weight; cost; value. We have our good set, our spare set and our absolute raving emergency poundshop set. Cyclists love their lights. They’re a mini industry in themselves.

5. You cycle on the pavement

I’ve been told off for this several times and on every single occasion I’ve actually been on a bike path or shared use path. I’ve even been told ‘it’s not a bloody great cycle path’ whilst actually on National Cycle Route 2. So before you start shrieking, just check, is it the cyclist that’s in the wrong, or are you just not very observant?

Personally, I’d rather no-one cycled on the pavement at all for the simple reason that it gives non-cyclists yet another stick with which to beat cyclists. However, logically I don’t really mind it so long as cyclists stick to the following rules: Go slow (sub 10mph), always give way to pedestrians, only  go on wide pavements, get off and push when someone particularly vulnerable is around.

In general though I maintain that the greatest and most dangerous myth is the first one: that a cyclist acts not as an individual but as part of some sort of hive mind. I thought I might try to appeal to cyclists and say ‘remember, we are all individuals’. But instead I’ll just say this: a law-breaking idiot is a law-breaking idiot, no matter how they choose to travel.

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One thought on “Cyclists: Some Myths About us Debunked

  1. This is a great post! I’m so glad you wrote it, as I’ve been thinking about writing something similar! Very well said, and I agree 100%. I also think it’s a problem when, if there is a crash between a cyclist and someone else (like a pedestrian or a car), it seems that the cyclist is automatically assumed to be at fault! I think the reason is because it gets at what you’re saying–people assume that all cyclists are the same + they only pay attention to and remember the bad things that cyclists do.

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